We used to think that our own galaxy was the entire universe. Edwin Hubble expanded that understanding to unimaginable distances.
Before Hubble, we didn't know about distant galaxies. Telescopes of the time saw only fuzzy areas of what were deemed gas clouds and dust, referred to as nebulae. Edwin Hubble revealed their physical nature and that they were far more distant than we imagined. He found their distances and revealed the expansion of the universe, providing the cornerstone for the Big Bang Theory. The most famous space telescope ever built was named for him, as well as an asteroid. He discovered big things, and big things have been named in his honor. He profoundly changed the way we understand the universe and he did so with an ever-present pipe in his teeth.
Hubble received excellent grades through high school, and was a star athlete in basketball, football, and especially track, breaking several event records. Although he was best known for sports, his academic achievements were impressive as well. At the end of his high school convocation, the superintendent announced, "Edwin Hubble, I have watched you for four years and never have I seen you study for ten minutes." He then paused for effect. "Here is a scholarship to the University of Chicago."
Since the time he received a telescope at age nine, Hubble was fascinated with astronomy. He wanted to pursue a degree in the field, but his father would not permit such a foolish pursuit and insisted that his studies prepare him for law school. His parents also forbade him from playing football in college. So instead, he took what science classes he could while preparing for law school, and he took up boxing, at which he excelled, turning down an offer to become a professional heavyweight boxer.
He was a natural athlete, 6'3" tall, and was considered by many to be preposterously handsome. Some who met him are reported to have referred to Hubble as "an Adonis." However, his intellectual capabilities surpassed his physical attractiveness, as his future would prove.
In 1910, after his undergraduate work, Hubble was selected for a Rhodes scholarship, and at Oxford University he continued with his father's wishes and went on to earn a B.A. in jurisprudence.
His father became ill in 1912, and Hubble petitioned his family to allow him to return home. His father refused, however, and passed away while Hubble was still at school. Hubble finished his course studies in law but had nine months left to study what he wished, and he came close to pursuing a degree in literature, but studied Spanish instead because it was less time consuming.
While in England, Hubble enjoyed the culture to the extent that he started emulating various British mannerisms:
Hubble particularly admired the British way of life. He courted their style, which he felt matched their reserved, dignified behavior. He started to dress in plus fours, a style of knickers popular at the time, topped with tweed jackets with leather buttons. He often covered his carefully combed head of hair with a huge cap, and he sported a cane. Edwin even mimicked British speech with a smattering of "by Joves," and he returned home with a British accent that he kept throughout his life. He took to smoking a pipe, which he clenched between his teeth whether it was lit or not. He was rarely without it. (Fox, pg 32)
He also wore a cape and employed phrases such as "ripping good show." These mannerisms may have been affectations, and they certainly irritated those astronomers competing with Hubble, but he was awfully devoted to them. It may be that they started as pretensions, but they became integral parts of his character. He was never without a pipe and truly enjoyed smoking.
Classmate William Stuart later wrote about attending Oxford with Hubble, saying that he never forgot Hubble's dexterous trick with a match after scoring a debating point: "...he would light his pipe, flip the match into the air so that it described a circle, and catch it, still burning, as it came down." (Christianson, pg. 72).
When Hubble returned to the U.S., he did not take his bar exams and couldn't bring himself to enter the profession. Some reports say that he did, and there are contradictions evident when looking online at Hubble information. However, Gale Christianson's book, Edwin Hubble: Mariner of the Nebulae, seems to be the most well-researched biography available, and this article has deferred to Christianson's work, which was completed with access to archives, interviews with Hubble's friends and relatives, and Hubble's wife Grace's journals. Those journals are often more hero worship than fact, which Christianson took into account, and are suspect regarding accuracy. She was as prone to embellishment, when it came to her husband, as Hubble himself.
Hubble was responsible for some of the muddiness of facts about his life. Being a genius isn't a pass on human imperfections. He sometimes lied to benefit his own story. For example, he claimed that he had practiced law part time for a year in Kentucky, but it was untrue. During that time he was a high school teacher of Spanish and a basketball coach. It was a lie perhaps motivated by his discomfort in having attained a law degree without becoming a lawyer. He did earn an income for a time by translating law documents, but that's as close as he came.
...He took to smoking a pipe, which he clenched between his teeth whether it was lit or not. He was rarely without it.
He tended to embellish episodes of his past. He was on a horseback ride once, for example, and happened upon a bear. It was an uneventful happenstance, but Hubble magnified it to mythological proportions, complete with knife fights, heroic rides, and the deaths of companions.
However, when it came to astronomy, Hubble was accurate and precise and without pretense. He didn't claim to have discovered galaxies, referring to them always as nebulae. He never used the words "expanding universe," though his observations indeed proved the concept.
In 1914, Hubble began his graduate studies in astronomy at the University of Chicago and studied further at the Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin. The observatory had one of the most powerful telescopes of the time, with a 24-inch refractor, which is an optical telescope using a lens.
As Hubble was completing his graduate studies, the Mount Wilson Observatory in California was nearing completion and enlisting staff. It had the most powerful telescope in existence, the 100-inch Hooker telescope, and Hubble accepted the offer of a position dependent on the completion of his dissertation, Photographic Investigations of Faint Nebulae. Hubble rushed to finish it and take his oral examinations. However, before he could begin working at Mount Wilson, Congress declared war on Germany and Hubble enlisted. He took his orals three days before reporting for duty. Mount Wilson promised that his position would be waiting when he returned from the war.
Edwin Hubble's Identity Card
Hubble served in France and rose to the rank of major. His service records were destroyed in a fire sometime after the war, but he said that he served as both a field officer and line officer and saw combat in the trenches, and that he had been wounded in battle, knocked unconscious by a mortar and waking in a hospital with an elbow injury. He left that hospital as soon as he awoke without speaking to anyone. However, the 86th division in which he served never saw combat. His discharge papers recorded no injuries, no wound chevrons awarded, no skirmishes, battles, or engagements. None of the boxes for those line items were checked.
He returned to the U.S. in 1919, spent one day with his family, and then traveled to the observatory to begin his job as an astronomer. Milton Humason, another astronomer at the facility, later wrote about his first impression of Major Hubble, as he preferred to be called: "He was photographing at the 60-inch, standing while he did his guiding. His tall, vigorous figure, pipe in mouth, was clearly outlined against the sky. A brisk wind whipped his military trench coat around his body and occasionally blew sparks from his pipe into the darkness of the dome."
Hubble soon began investigating spiral nebulae, as he had done for his dissertation. It was not known precisely what they were. It was speculated that they might be star clusters or gas clouds with stars. Importantly, in the Andromeda nebula, Hubble found Cepheid variable stars, which are stars with variable light cycles related to their luminosity.
The importance of Cepheid stars for measuring distance was grounded in the work of Henrietta Leavitt. As she studied the Small Magellanic Clouds, she compiled a list of almost 2,000 periodic variables. She discovered that those with longer cycles were brighter than those with shorter cycles. Because the stars in that area were approximately the same distance from Earth, their difference in apparent magnitude was directly related to their difference in absolute magnitude, and she plotted a direct relationship between period and brightness, known as the period-luminosity relationship.
Astronomer Ejnar Hertzsprung extrapolated Leavitt's observations and found that the distance to a Cepheid could be calculated by measuring its period from its light curve. Building on the work of these astronomers, Hubble was able to measure the distance to the Andromeda nebula as 900,000 light years. Today, with more accurate calculations for the period-luminosity of Cepheids, we know that the distance is 2.5 million light years, but the discovery was incredibly important.
Distances such as these indicated that nebulae were outside of our own galaxy, which meant that the universe was almost infinitely larger than thought. There were galaxies like ours filling space in every direction and at inconceivable distances. It was a groundbreaking discovery and Hubble was made famous around the world, his scientific fame becoming second only to that of Albert Einstein.
In 1926, Hubble and and his wife Grace moved into a new home. Gale Christianson describes Hubble's study:
Its polished oak floor, thickly plastered walls, and barreled ceiling, which would soon become discolored from the rising smoke of his many pipes, gave it a feeling of a monastery.... On the table and stand were his pipes, a half dozen or more, with plain briar bowls and straight stems, from Dunhill. The large tin of tobacco contained a special blend carried by the London Pipe Shop in Los Angeles.
On the wall was a pipe cabinet displaying more pipes. His study was a sanctuary where he spent much of his leisure time reading and smoking.
A few years later, Hubble began investigating the question of why most galaxies seemed to be moving away from each other and from Earth, a phenomenon identified because of the redshifts of their light. Redshifts and blueshifts, if interpreted as Doppler shifts, indicate movement away from the observer if red, and toward the observer if blue. The spectra of stars contain absorption lines indicating the excitement of particular elements at different energy levels. When those absorption lines don't correlate to those of stationary light, a shift is inferred.
On the table and stand were his pipes, a half dozen or more, with plain briar bowls and straight stems, from Dunhill. The large tin of tobacco contained a special blend carried by the London Pipe Shop in Los Angeles.
Hubble published a paper on his findings in 1929, in which he reported a relationship between linear redshift and distance. He found that a galaxy's redshift is directly proportional to its distance. If a galaxy is twice as far away as another, it will have twice the redshift. His colleague Milton Humason measured the spectral shifts of objects while Hubble worked on the distances, and their observations were quickly recognized as confirmation of an expanding universe, as predicted by Einstein's relativity equations. Einstein himself didn't believe that his theory was entirely accurate because it indicated that expansion, but was reassured by Hubble's work. The observation that galaxies move away from the Earth in proportion to their distance became known as Hubble's Law, later amended to the Hubble-Lemaître Law in recognition of Georges Lemaître, who published similar work two years prior to Hubble but went unrecognized because he had published in a small French journal that was not widely read.
In 1949, Hubble suffered a major heart attack. His doctor forbade him from smoking, and Hubble was inconsolable. Christianson writes:
...he remained at home, gazing wistfully at the large collection of straight briar pipes from Dunhill by his chair. A saddened Grace looked on, privately mourning the loss of ritual – knocking the ash out, scraping the inside of the bowl, tamping in the tobacco, lighting it, letting it go out, and relighting it, "all in a deliberate, reflective way." The cost seemed all the greater since Edwin had no other habits and was "without mannerisms."
The Hubble Space Telescope
Hubble was not without entertainment, though. He loved his cat, Nicolas Copernicus, and found that pipe cleaners entertained the feline and in turn himself. "Nicola disdained his rubber mouse, ball, and other toys," writes Christianson, "but delighted in the pliant, tufted rods kept by his master in the bottom drawer of the stand next to his chair. He would either sit by the stand and beg or, when Hubble reached for the handle, dash over and claw out a new one, which eventually turned up floating in the pan of drinking water, or lying beside the food dish."
Hubble passed away in 1953 of a cerebral thrombosis. At the time of his death, the Nobel Prize was not available for the field of astronomy, something that Hubble had worked long to rectify, and sadly, it was only shortly after he died that the Nobel committee changed its view of astronomy and permitted its inclusion for the physics prize. The Nobel is not awarded posthumously; otherwise, Hubble would certainly have been recognized for the work that gave humanity a new recognition of its place in the universe.
Edwin Hubble: Navigator of the Nebulae by Gale E. Christiansen (1995)
Edwin Hubble: American Astronomer by Mary Virginia Fox (1997)